Monday, June 30, 2008

Ken Mondschein: Diamond Engagement Rings

(Courtesy of LW. The Dialogic staff has always supported a boycott of diamonds--your love must be weak if you have to prove it with a "blood" stone!)

Diamond Engagement Rings
by Ken Mondschein

There's no more apropos subject for a column on the history of single life than the object that signifies the end of singledom: a sparking diamond set atop a band of gold. Engagement rings have been around since antiquity, and various theories suggest they originated as a miniaturized form of slave bands, a ritualized exchange of wealth, or as symbols of eternity. But while the rich often decorated such rings with jewels, the idea that "only a diamond will do" is a relatively recent innovation. And, as Edward Jay Epstein's 1982 exposé in The Atlantic Monthly and his follow-up book made clear, the way in which would-be grooms became required to tithe "two month's salary" to the bijouterie gods ain't a pretty story. Diamonds, as Carol Channing sang, may be a girl's best friend, but it's a pretty unhealthy, codependent relationship.

For much of human history, diamonds were found in only a few hard-to-reach places — the jungles of Brazil, and a couple of riverbeds in India. They were so rare, in fact, that only the ultra-wealthy could afford them. Archduke Maximillian, who would soon be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, gave one to Mary of Burgundy to seal their 1477 betrothal in what is often cited as the first historical example of a diamond engagement ring. However, this situation changed in the 1870s, when massive diamond mines were discovered in South Africa. Poorly-paid, abominably treated native African workers could now strip the gems from the earth by the ton. Faced with the prospect of a massive oversupply of diamonds, the investors (chiefly arch-racist Cecil Rhodes and his partner C. D. Rudd) formed the De Beers mining company in 1880. By the end of the century, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer had managed to collect all the colonial African diamond discoveries under the De Beers banner. To quote Epstein, the cartel was (and to some extent still is) "the most successful cartel arrangement in the annals of modern commerce," carefully controlling the supply of diamonds to assure their scarcity and value.

But what about the demand side? How to convince the world that an isometric-hexoctahedral crystal lattice allotrope of carbon was something they absolutely needed to buy?

How to convince the world that an isometric-hexoctahedral crystal lattice allotrope of carbon was something they absolutely needed to buy?
The answer was marketing. Anyone who owns a TV has seen the commercials: the dancing shadows on the wall, the violin score quickening to the point of string-ensemble orgasm. The thirty-second spots are only the latest incarnation of a carefully orchestrated campaign that stretches back decades. In 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, De Beers formed an alliance with the New York advertising agency N.W. Ayer. With war in Europe looming on the horizon, the United States seemed the safest bet to expand the diamond market, and Ayer performed brilliantly. Soon, Hollywood movies featured prominent product placements, celebrities and actors were festooned with diamonds for public appearances and fashion designers, photographers and reporters were encouraged to talk up the "diamond trend" or the size of the rock Ginger Rogers was sporting.

This, however, was only the beginning. The next step was a psychological approach: consumers everywhere had to see the diamond as the universally recognized symbol of love, commitment and the social status derived from middle-class domesticity. The slogan "a diamond is forever" debuted in 1947, giving consumers not only the idea that the diamond is a symbol of enduring love, but that it shouldn't be resold. This was because diamonds lose considerable value in resale, and since there's no point in paying De Beers full price when you could get a cheaper one second-hand, De Beers loses a lucrative sale on every diamond resold.

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